Formal gardens

Formality expresses power, control, order, domination and the
elegance that refinement and discipline brings.
Paul Thompson, Australian Planting Design

Formal gardens are carefully structured gardens that tend to involve a high degree of control over form, texture and colour. Symmetry and mirror imaging are classic components of traditional formal gardens, though they aren't essential to the style. You might think that few native plants are suitable, but a surprising number adapt very well, including Coastal Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa), Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum) and Whalebone Tree (Streblus brunonianus).

Some typical elements of formal gardens are hedges and repetitive use of plants with similar textures, colours and heights. These gardens often use well-trimmed plants as background or structural elements, designed to draw the eye to feature plants or objects such as statues, a pool or pond, or a sculpture. Formality does not need to involve strict symmetry and neat lines everywhere. A mix of topiary pruned plants and others left in a more natural state can work well.
This garden mixes a neatly pruned Coastal Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa) with less formal elements. Image by Kath Gadd. All rights reserved.
How to achieve the look:
  • Symmetry is important in formal gardens. You can try strict mirror imaging, or create less formal symmetry by repeating similar shapes, masses, materials and styles. 
  • Use repetitive plantings of a limited number of core species for hedging and screening, used to form straight lines or curves.
  • Choose striking feature plants or objects placed within framed spaces such as ‘garden rooms’ surrounded by hedging. A water feature, such as a pool, fountain or ornamental bird bath is a common element in many formal gardens. 
  • Be prepared to prune plants regularly, and be patient for them to grow into their final form. (The faster a plant grows at first, the more pruning and maintenance it will need later.)
Pruning does not have to be harsh or super neat. This White Correa (Correa alba) hedge has a soft profile that
works well with the broad meandering path beside it. Image by Emma Rooksby.
Some plants to consider include:

Hedging and topiary plants
Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum)
Dense shrub, somewhat prickly (caution required); sun or shade  
Illawarra Plum Pine (Podocarpus elatus)
Dense but slow growing shrub, eventually a tree; sun or shade
Brush Cherry (Syzygium australe)
Relatively fast-growing and may need more regular pruning than other species; full sun or part shade
Whalebone Tree (Streblus brunonianus)
Tough small-leaved tree that can be pruned to maintain a shrub form; full sun or part shade
Tree Heath (Trochocarpa laurina)
Shrub or small tree to 4m, but smaller if kept pruned, attractive pinkish new growth; part shade
Naturally symmetrical plants

Native Rosemary (Westringia fruticosa)
Shrub to 3m with small leaves and a neat habit; best in full sun
White Correa (Correa alba)
Shrub to 2m with grey-green leaves and pretty white flowers; full or dappled sun
Port Jackson Pine (Callitris rhomboidea)
Narrow tree to around 8m, similar to Pencil Pine; full sun
Burrawang (Macrozamia communis)
Large palm-like plant with long fronds from a central heart; shade or dappled shade
Settlers’ Flax (Gymnostachys anceps)
Long strappy leaves, blue fruit on tall stems; shade tolerant
Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa)
Large, tall leafy plant to 4m across, with striking tall flower spikes; shade or sun
Feature shrubs or trees

Cheese Tree (Glochidion ferdinandi)
Small neat tree with glossy green leaves and interesting cheese-shaped fruit, crown can be shaped; full sun or part shade
Bonewood (Emmenosperma alphitonioides)
Conical-crowned tree to around 10m tall, with bunches of orange fruit; full sun
Scentless Rosewood (Synoum glandulosum)
Small tree with decorative white flowers and reddish fruit; full sun or part shade
Plumwood (Eucryphia moorei)
Small neat tree with symmetrical habit and large white flowers; part shade
Celery Wood (Polyscias elegans)
Small tree with neat rounded crown and glossy leaves; full sun or part shade
Orange Thorn (Pittosporum multiflorum) is ideally suited to hedging and topiary work. It will also provide habitat for birds and other animals. Image by Kath Gadd.

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